Since the beginning of 2011, two major Google algorithm updates have taken place and affected the way pages are ranked, which were codenamed Panda and Penguin. Destination marketing organizations that are searching for top rankings for specific keyword searches have a new set of best practices to incorporate into their search engine marketing efforts.
The Panda Update
Google’s Panda update hit the search results in February of 2011 and was the company’s response to complaints about “content farms.” If you don’t know what a content farm is, that’s because Panda accomplished its goal. Think back to running “how to” searches on Google prior to 2011 and looking for results from ehow.com. These content farms created thousands upon thousands of separate articles for highly specific keywords like “how to feed a 2-week-old Chihuahua” and “how to fix a leaking blue Bic pen” (article titles made up, but not exaggerated much). That sounds helpful, but in many cases the content was thin and poorly explained. Nonetheless, there was so much content on these sites, and they pulled in so many links, that their domains had incredible PageRank (i.e. ranking power). They were able to place even their weakest articles at the top of the search results for popular terms.
People began to see these pages as search engine pollution, as the farms’ pages pushed down content that was more useful simply because they shared a domain with other popular articles. After some time, Google released the Panda update to fix the issue. This update involved processing billions of web pages and classifying their various user-facing characteristics, then combining that data with information from human reviewers about web-page quality. It thus “understood” what characteristics made a web page good or bad and could do a better job of downgrading pages that people wouldn’t like. You can see the effect on ehow.com’s traffic here:
And the effect on the stock price of Demand Media, ehow.com’s parent corporation:
Remember, the change occurred in February 2011. Google regularly updates the Panda algorithm every month or so, but the effects are usually minor compared to the initial rollout.
The good news for DMOs is that the kinds of things penalized by Panda are very rarely encountered on their sites. Among these are having too many ads (like, a lot of ads, especially above the fold), having too many low-content pages and having lots of separate pages that target slightly different keywords related to essentially the same topic. If you keep your website primarily focused on user experience, as DMOs are inclined to do, you should not ever have any problems with Panda. Panda demotes sites that do not put their users first, so it should actually help you.
The Penguin Update
More recently, Google rolled out the Penguin update in April of 2012. The effects weren’t as drastic overall, though they were still noticeable. On a conceptual level, Penguin didn’t really bring anything new. Rather, it represented Google’s effort to place renewed emphasis on “black-hat” (i.e. manipulative and user-unfriendly) tactics that it had always officially condemned, but not always punished accordingly. These include paid links, keyword-stuffing and excessive duplicate content creation. Even if you have done some of these things by accident, you should be fine for the most part; Google does not want to destroy a good site just because you bought a couple links in the past. If you’ve ever bought links extensively and on purpose, though, you may be in trouble.
How to Stay Safe
Of all the things that Penguin penalizes, the one that DMOs should be most careful about is keyword stuffing. This is not the same as using targeted keywords in a tasteful and user-friendly manner in your content. You would only be in danger if you went overboard. For example, if you included the same keyword in every other sentence on a page, that could be considered “keyword stuffing.” Another example could be writing a 500-character page title that repeated the same words repeatedly. Most sites do not do this, but some that optimize their content according to best practices from ten years ago might be in trouble. As a rule of thumb, if you read your content and the keywords stick out like sore thumbs in places where no one would ever include them in a world without search engines, tone it down a little.
If you are feeling scared after reading about these algorithm updates, take comfort in knowing that they are primarily aimed at demoting the worst offenders. You need to follow best practices for Google-approved search engine optimization to be sure you won’t be penalized, but it’s difficult to bring down the wrath of Panda and Penguin on your head by accident. Put users first and you should rise. Those who don’t will fall.